Now that Chief Wahoo is being forced into retirement after more than 70 years of faithful service, I’d like to say a few words in defense of the Cleveland Indians’ mascot.
— His origin can be traced to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot Indian in honor of whom the Cleveland Naps changed their name to Indians in 1915.
— Eliminating his image from Cleveland’s uniforms is just another example of political correctness run amok.
— He’s a harmless caricature.
I’d like to say those things, but I can’t. Because they’re all beside the point. He is, and always has been, a racist symbol.
I grew up with Chief Wahoo in the 1950s and ‘60s. On days after the Indians played a game I didn’t have to turn to the sports pages to see how they did, because his caricature would be on the front page. If they lost, it would show him looking dejected. If they won, it would show him looking triumphant — with a scalp in his hand.
No one thought much about that back then. Of course, no one thought much about the blatant stereotyping of Negroes (as we called them) on the Amos and Andy radio show back then, either. Or the depiction of Orientals (as we called them) as funny little people with slanty eyes who couldn’t pronounce the letter “r.” Or Polish jokes. On blonde jokes. It was the golden age of stereotypes and if those people didn’t like it, well, that was their problem.
But when I hear Chief Wahoo excused as just a harmless caricature, I think back to a conversation I had with a Native-American woman I met in a Cleveland restaurant several years ago. People were first starting to raise the issue of athletic teams with names like Chiefs, Braves and Redskins and I asked her she felt about the Indians name.
She didn’t mind the name, she replied. She only objected to the cartoonish Chief Wahoo.
“Look at my children,” she said, pointing to a cute couple of kids seated at her table. “Do they look anything like him? Do they have big noses like that? It’s embarrassing for them to have him seen as a symbol.”
I think that’s reason enough for the Chief to be retired. With no reservations.
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